By Belinda Buckley @ChamonixStylist
Ski touring is the currently the hippest and biggest growth sport in the winter sports arena. Chamonix, being the capital of ski mountaineering, has always led the way in this very off-piste practice, due to the lack of purpose-built and inter-linked ski areas, the classic transport nature of skiing without lifts and the extreme elevation of the Mont-Blanc region.
Strictly speaking, the ski touring season starts in spring, as most routes favour spring snow conditions. Since spring snow conditions take a lot of experience in reading correctly and are so variable, certain ski tours are best undertaken in winter. Indeed, ski touring takes the skier – or split-boarder –well away from controlled ski areas: up to high altitude, on to glaciers and far from the madding crowds. This is the key attraction to ski touring – access to the backcountry on the up and riding untouched snowfields of fresh powder or spring corn on the down.
But ski touring is not a winter sport to be tackled lightly. The technique of climbing uphill on skis with skins takes some practice and touring off the beaten track quickly takes skiers into avalanche prone and glaciated, as well as isolated, terrain. So do the right thing and book a high mountain guide, who will not only show the way and keep the tour safe, but will also teach ski touring and ski mountaineering techniques.
The obvious place to enquire about booking a guide to go ski touring with is the Chamonix high mountain guides’ office in La Maison de la Montagne by the church in the centre of town. Or you can go direct to one of the many international guiding companies that are based in Chamonix, such as Russell Brice and Sébastien Rougegré’s Chamonix Experience in Chamonix Sud, or Kenton Cool’s company Dream Guides.
Starter ski tours include crossing the Glacier d’Argentière from the top cable car of Les Grands-Montets to the Refuge d’Argentière, where you can overnight before tackling the Col du Tour Noir. Across the valley in the Aiguilles Rouges national park there is the famous Crochues-Berard Traverse, which is quite technical, but variations such as Col de Beugeant and Col des Dards are a bit easier and all are accessible from the La Flégère cable car. Also in the Aiguilles Rouges are Pointe Noire de Pormenaz from Plaine Joux and the Aiguillette des Houches from Le Brévent.
Further afield in neighboring Switzerland is a lovely ski tour with a great story, the Hospice du Grand-Saint-Bernard, which has sheltered travelers on the pass between Switzerland and Italy for centuries. While through the Mont-Blanc tunnel in Italy, there is a lovely tour possible in Val Ferret to the Bonatti refuge, which has fabulous food and even makes its own chocolate, www.rifugiobonatti.it.
As with all things fashionable and edgy, ski touring equipment does not come cheap. Serious ski mountaineers tour on the most lightweight technical gear possible which is extremely expensive, but most ski tourers are not wanting to race up and down mountains like Kilian Jornet. Fortunately, current contemporary hybrid ski gear allows for effective ascents and enjoyable descents for the best backcountry ski tours.
A good set up should comprise a lightweight touring version of big mountain skis, such as Black Crows’ Freebird range, with Dynafit or Marker touring bindings and hybrid ski boots that are flexible enough for touring and stiff enough for performance freeriding, from Dynafit, Salomon or Black Diamond. Add to this the all-important skins, a climbing harness for glacier touring, ski crampons, ice screws, carabiners and rope, not forgetting full avalanche safety kit of transceiver, shovel and probe – with all of that you should be good to ski tour anywhere. All such gear is available to rent or buy from Ehvoé partner Grands Montets Sports.
As for what to wear, the key is layers that keep out the elements and can be shed easily when the going gets warm – ladies can consult Chamonix Stylist’s spring skiing wardrobe advice on this blog: http://www.sommervillecarr.com/blog/2015/03/what-to-wear-to-look-cool-while-spring-skiing/
Don’t ski like a tourist, but definitely ski tour like a Chamonix pro.